Saturday, 28 June 2014

Katoomba Magic Festival

The beautiful 3 sisters in all their glory!
June is the winter soltice in the Southern Hemisphere, the shortest day (or longest night, depending on your perspective!) of the year. All around the nation, people are turning their heaters on, slipping into bed socks, and making chicken soup. It's cold in Sydney right now, but not as cold as Europe of course - but Australia does get cold people! In a small town an hour's drive out of Sydney, people are actually wearing less clothes, hitting streets and celebrating in their own way. Yes, it's Katoomba Magic Festival time again!

The main street of Katoomba on festival day.

Animals hats on adults? You decide.
Some of the costumes at the festival.
The Winter Solstice had been important for people all around the world for a very long time. Typically it was the last feast before the harsh winter sets in. People feasted because they weren't guaranteed to survive the winter - they had to hope they had enough to eat until spring came. Most of the cattle were slaughtered at this time, so they didn't have to be fed, and so this was the only time a year you had fresh meat. There are also many festivities around the world, as this special day has been known for millennia - they still hold a sunrise ceremony at the Stonehenge for example.

Animals hats are fine for children.
That is real hair...
In Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney, it is called the Magic Festival, and it kind of like a Medieval Fair on drugs. The main street is closed off to cars, shop stalls are set up, and thousands of people come out all dressed up in weird and wonderful costumes. This year the weather was absolutely glorious - a sunny 19c! I need to remind you that this is the middle of our winter here, and Sydney has been averaging about 22c up until recently - not bad for winter really is it? The mountains are normally colder obviously, but today it turned it on for everyone to enjoy. Usually the weather is bitterly cold - but that has never stopped people coming to the festival.

Horns AND a onesie!
Wow a cape!
The shop stalls sell anything from ales and coffee to healing crystals and wooly hats. It is just fin to walk the streets, look at the people all dressed up, and enjoy the day. It needs to be mentioned though - the question of 'Onesies' and whether they should be seen in public. If you don't know what onesies are, you've been living under a rock, so get out from under it and open your eyes. Onesies are a one-peice baby's jumpsuit made for adults, and come in all shapes and sizes, but mostly in the form of farmyard animals. There were tigers and penguins and others that I just wasn't too sure about. Grown men and women wear these things (and even some celebs), and the question is really should they be? It is one thing to wear at home on the sofa watching TV, sure, but to come out in public? Well, each to their own I guess, but you won't catch me wearing one!

I'm watching you!
Katoomba!
What Katoomba is famous for.
 On any other day, the village of Katoomba is a peaceful and relaxing place. Although it is the mountains, they aren't skiing mountains. Katoomba is at about 1000m, and very different mountains - there are no real peaks, instead just valleys with plateaus sticking out of the green eucalypt forest. The first (European) people to explore and cross the Blue Mountains were a trio of men, Lawson, Blaxland and Wentworth (now town names there). They started out in 1813, as by that time the colony in Sydney had grown rapidly since it's founding in 1788, and needed more farming land to meet it's needs. Their crossing was successful due to a new idea of exploring mountains - previous it had been the English way of following valleys - and this had so far proved futile in Australia. Completed in 21 days, it opened up new farming land for Sydney and founded Australia's first inland city (Bathurst), and the explorers were each granted 1,000 acres of land by Governor Lachlan Macquarie for their services. This is the same Governor of NSW that named everything after his and his wife - Mrs Macquarie's Chair, Lake Macquarie, Lachlan River, Port Macquarie and Macquarie Street in Sydney to name just a few. What an ego!

View of The Blue Mountains from Echo Point.
 Well that's it for another year. Now Katoomba will be returned to it's normal state of relaxation, quiet coffee shops, and artists and people with slightly alternative lifestyles. It is a lovely place, one that I would consider living in if I decided that I needed out of the city. I can quite easily picture myself in my house, looking out over the valleys and breathing in the clean, fresh air. It would have to be green house, solar panels, rainwater collection, the whole deal. Ah but my mind wanders!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Wine Tasting In The Hunter

Sunset in The Hunter.
Everyone knows that Australia makes loads of wines, and quite decent ones at that. Go anywhere in the world, and you can find a Penfold's, Jacob's Creek or a Wolf Blass. To be fair, if you do live outside of Australia, you're probably not really getting the good stuff - as we keep that for ourselves - that and if you live in Spain or France, where they have their own big industry, Australian wines are competition. I do love a good cheap French wine with some brie and fresh, crusty bread, sitting in a park in the sun and scoffing it all down - mmmmm!!

My favourite kind - drink now!
Back on track - I will stick to Australia! Most people have heard of The Barassa Valley in South Australia (just near Adelaide in fact), and it was also mentioned in previous blogs. This is the main region in Australia, and probably makes the best wines. There is also the Yarra Valley in Victoria, which I've never visited. The Hunter Valley is New South Wales' answer to the Barossa, and lies 2.5 hours north of Sydney, not far from Newcastle. In fact, The Hunter Valley was the first region in the country to be settled for wine making, and the first Australia wine was exported in 1822. The region is just outside the country town of Cessnock (with a population 20,000), has over 120 wine prodcuers and produces many wines from grapes such as Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon.

A lovely case for your favourite bottle.
Two of my friends from the UK (Harry and Ania) were over visiting, staying for two and a half weeks at the end to their 9 months gallivanting around Asia, before heading back home. These are the same 2 friends that I went to Nepal with, and also taught in Spain with. They had already taken me to their first (and mine believe it or not) Aussie Rules game ever, and so we decided to do a bit of wine tasting together. Before leaving, we made a pact - no spitting! We would be swallowers all the way! Well, you're one of the other, and no one likes wasting good wine!

Wine barrels at McGuigan's.
Sound advice!
Some of the local wildlife.
Driving overnight, we made it up just in time to see an absolute ripper of a football match between Australia and Chile. Just to clarify, I call it football now, instead of soccer, as I have spent many years in the UK and Europe and it's just a habit. Although the result wasn't a good one for Australia (and we have since lost our 2nd game, effectively putting us out of the World Cup), we played a brilliant game, way above what our world ranking says. After the slightly disappointed ending to the game, it was a great start to our day - 10am and our first winery! Our first stop was Wynward Estates - and we were greeting by 2 lovely girls serving sparkling Chardonnay with cheese and crackers! Great way to clense the palet, and unfortunately not done by any other winery on our tour. Wynward - points to you! The wines were also lovely, the staff friendly and knowledgable, so much so that the next day we went back and bought some of their lovely Merlo (and had a few tastes just to make sure!).

An old bottle at Drayton's.
Nice glass, shame about the wine.
Not recently...
We visited about 5 other cellars, and I could talk about all of them, but I wont. McGuigan's was a little disappointing to be honest though. It was our last stop, and promised to be good as we there was a big cheese shop attached to the main building. We didn't get any cheese with the wine, the wines were mostly white (I'm a reds man), and staff a little annoying and seemed not to actually want us there tasting. Losers - didn't buy there! Drayton's on the other hand is worth mentioning. It is also the place where we had lunch - a lovely spot of Angus beef with a hearty Shiraz. We were taken down into the cellar, and tried all of their wines (some twice!), before moving onto their ports! I've never had a bottle of port sitting at home, but when someone offers me some, I rarely refuse. Light and dark port, both lovely and warming, but my real favourite was their White Chocolate Liqueur. It was that good that when we went back the next day, I had to try it again, then ask for a try of their dark chocolate one, then another sip of the white, just to make sure... I did buy one, so I wasn't being that cheeky!

Makes me sing Johnny Cash...
14/10 = don't bother with the ambulance, call the undertakers!
On the wine tour, the bus also took us around to chocolate shops and other places for us to spend our tourist money, but one stop that was definately worth it was a condiments store. Known for their chilli, said the bus driver, you will find some hot hot chilli. Bring it! Wandering around, I tasted their olives, oils and mayonaises too... and then I came to their chilli. A very big range for such a small shop, so I was spoilt for choice - so I decided to try one called "Ring 'O Fire." Let me tell you - aptly named! With only a small dip of the bread into the chilli, less then a fingernail's worth, my ring was on fire... it does exactly what it advertises. so I had to get some! The jar is about 300gs worth, and will probably last longer than me! There were other chillis as well, including wasabi chilli, and some even had a rating - I didn't even go near the 15/10 one... how is that possible!!

Wine barrels.

Never keep it bottled up!
Interesting tea towels.
I was however a little surprised about the fact that most wineries here in The Hunter actually don't grow it - they bring it in from other regions around Australia. Some from Orange and Mudgee for example, other from Victoria and South Australia. It was surprising, but then again when I looked around, there was empty land with just grass growing, not vines. The Barossa is different - all you can see is grapes growing in any place that there isn't a house, building or a road. I expected the same from The Hunter, but apparently the weather here isn't as perfect as slightly further down south. Still, there was the Ivanhoe winery that did grow all their own stuff, and my it was tasty! Stopped back in there for a few bottles the next day too. After all this wine tasting however, one does get a bit thirsty, and there's nothing like a cold beer for a hard earned thirst from drinking all day. We had dinner in a great pub in town, a huge serving of schnitzel (which was acutely shaped like Australia - no joke!), and a few more pints to top that off. Completely satisfied with our trip overall - next wine tasting will have to be in the Barossa, or France even!

Sunset over one of the 6 courses in the region.
As a small side-note, while tasting (drinking) wine, we decided to see how many words we could come up with for 'drunk' in English. There are plenty of words for bodily functions in English, and the same goes for putting liquid into our bodies in excess. 25 was how many we came up with and wrote down, but we came up with more at the time, but due to being slightly tipsy (1!), didn't write them down immediately! A few choice ones were: trolleyed (this is quite often when you are actually drunk enough to get in a trolley and be pushed by your mates), slaughtered, hammered and bladdered (for when there is just no more space for liquid left!).

Monday, 16 June 2014

Queens Birthday Weekend

Sydney's Vivid Festival.
Last week it was the Queen's Birthday long weekend - a great day to be part of the Commonwealth for 3 days! Now, I'm no Royalist, nor do I hate the old biddy (Sweaty Betty as I lovingly call her), I just like having an extra sleep in! The Queens Birthday holiday was first celebrated in Australia way back in 1788, and has been done every year much to everyone's delight, but on different dates every year, but always for a long weekend!

The Vivid lights on the Opera House.
Loads of things are happening in the city for this weekend, as it is also the Sydney Vivid Festival. Having been living overseas for the past decade (actually its been 2 years home in the past 10...), I had never heard of this festival before. I headed down to see what it was all about! It is basically a light and music festival all round the city - from lasers shows on the CBD's glass towers, to neon lights on the Bridge and a cool light show on the Opera House. It was very cool - and everyone and their dogs were there too, mobile phones (and bloody iPads) in the air, instagramming and facebooking away.

The Bridge from The Rocks.
The coolest part of the festival, apart from the great food and music, had to be the Opera House. During the day, this unique building glows in the sunshine, displaying it's million white tiles (1,056,006 to be exact!) in true Aussie pride. During the Vivid, it becomes a blank canvas for the creative people of the city to do what they will with it! From splattering paint to butterflies and moving bubbles, the Opera House steals the show once again. All over the city as well, there were installations of various types - all a play on light and music. The time I went down to see these, it was a Saturday night and far to busy to get close.

Market stalls at the Vivid.
Well, that was Saturday, and so there was still Sunday and Monday to be enjoyed. I decided to head to Taronga Zoo for the Monday, as it's been years since I'd been there. The Zoo, is right on the Harbour in the suburb of Mosman, and has some of the best views of the city. It's not cheap to visit (but is any zoo?), included in the price of your ticket is a ferry trip across the harbour and a cable car ride to the top the zoo. The Zoo was opened in 1916, and has changed so much over the years, and still is. You can still see some of the original buildings, but where concrete and steel enclosures once stood, new, open and natural enclosures now hold the animals.

A Sulphur Crested Cockatoo - the iconic Australia bird.
View of the city from the ferry.
To you too budy!
The ferry trip is definitely a highlight of the zoo trip. It is a great way to see the city and the harbour from a completely different angle, one that can only be seen from the water. From Circular Quay you slowly chuck past The Opera House, and get a wonderful view from the deck - and this is truly when you fully realise the sheer size of the building. The original design on the building was a quick sketch by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon in 1955, picked from 233 entries from 32 different countries. Construction was started in 1958, and finally ended in 1973, costing 14 times the original estimation of $7m and 10 years later than expected. There were scandals, union strikes, elections and even the resignation of the designer, but I think it was worth it. Utzon recieved the Pritzker Prize in 2004 for his work on the Opera House, and it was also made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

The city from Taronga.
Jumped off the ferry, and got into the Gondola lift that takes you right to the top of the zoo, making it easy to walk down at the end of the day. The lift gives you a great birds-eye view of some of the animals too! The zoo is on a big hill, so it's best to start from the top, as walking around the zoo all day is hard enough without having to slog it out to reach the top for an animal feeding. Animals, animals and more animals - really spoilt for choice here. I tried to see them in order of a general route, and also to line up the keeper shows and feedings. First stop was the reptile house - as good a place to start as any! From huge snakes like the Boa Constrictor to the even bigger Anaconda, to tiny little tree frogs and geckos. My favourite reptile would defiantly have to be the Chameleon. When I was in Barcelona, I was that close to buying one on the Ramblas... but next time I'm there, he's mine! I mean, what other animal changes colour, has 2 toes and completely independent eyes??!! Coolest animal ever! And, I think they would be cheap to keep as well - eat a few bugs here and there - and no expensive vet fees - how can you go wrong with a Chameleon?

The coolest animal ever?
You looking at me?
We're just good friends, nothing more!
Heading downhill to the African part, towards the Giraffes Gorillas and other G animals. The Giraffes at Taronga zoo have the best real estate in town - a wonderful panoramic view of Sydney. Not like they need to be at the top of the hill with those necks of theirs! Elegant, graceful and calm - all words you can use to describe a giraffe... but did you know they have a purple tongue? A few more interesting facts about these bizarre but cool looking animals. A female giraffe gestates for up to 15 months, and when the baby does drop, it literally drops, snapping the umbilical cord in the process, and then stands up at a height of 6ft (180cms) tall - ouch! Ok, we all know what 'necking' is right? Yup, that's downing your beer in one go... well for male giraffes, this is not the case. First of all because they don't drink beer (that I know of), and second their neck is too long, and they can't reach it with their hands (feet). Seriously though, giraffe 'necking' is actually when 2 males swing their huge necks at each other in combat, not usually killing each other, but sometimes resulting in injuries. Now here is the most interesting thing - after combat, the males will caress each other and rub necks ("sorry mate, I really do love you..." "I know mate, me too!"), but this can lead to mounting and climax between the guys - apparently 94% of observed couplings in one study took place between 2 males...

Life is tough!!
You scream once more kid, and you're dinner!
The big cats were next, and they did not disappoint in the least! The weather wasn't fantastic - a little overcast and drizzly - so you would expect cats to be sleeping. Well, this was not the case! As I walked into the viewing area, a huge (I mean huge!!) lioness was at the glass and staring everyone down! There were more than a few little kids who started crying and their parents had to take them away. They will never look at a cat the same way again, and I don't think they will be pulling their tails either. I couldn't see the male lion, but the 2 girls were just fine - big, furry and they were just so gorgeous I wanted to take them home and cuddle them on the sofa all day - even if I did get my head bitten off at dinner time! The tigers were slightly less active, just lazing around, not looking too happy about the weather. Although I didn't expect a song and dance out of them, they didn't even stand up - just laying about yawing... typical cats!

Yup, a zebra and penquin...
This be my kingdom!
Although we missed the chimpanzees and the orangutangs, we did manage to catch a quick glimpse of the gorillas out and about. At first, I could only see the two females, who were sitting out of the rain. Then, just as I turned around to leave, the big silverback came charging out to assert his dominance. Huge forearms on display, he stood there, fists on the ground, chest out, staring down at his human cousins. An awesome sight! Gorillas, I find, to be the most human, and the most off-putting. I mean this in a good way - Gorillas are our closest relative (apart from the chimp), sharing 95-98% of our DNA, and this makes their movements, behaviour and just the way the sit there and look at you quite unnervingly human. One gorilla event learnt sign language - a sign of how intelligent they are. I wish of mine is to see these incredible animals in the wild, which I'm sure is high on many other people's list too.

I could get it if I wanted to!
Have the kids gone yet??
There are many other things I could talk about regarding Taronga Zoo. I still think it is one of the best zoos in the world. Although many people have differing opinions on zoos, it's cruel on the animals for example, I do honestly that zoos play a vital part in education and preservation. It is true that we wouldn't need zoos if the human race were more responsible, but unfortunately that is not the case. Until that time, we have to support our zoos, protect out environment, and grow up and little so something is left. I will leave it at that, as it's getting far too serious for this blog. If you haven't been here yet, you should. Great day out for everyone!

Castells in Tarragona

It's Castell Time! The Concurs de Castells, held every 2 years in Tarragona. The 'pack' - forming the pinya for a Huma...